REVIEW: Inner Dialogue (NZ International Comedy Festival)

Review by Matt Baker

[Tears of a Clown]

A man walks into a doctor’s office and says, “Doctor, I’m depressed.” The doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him, that should cheer you up.” The man bursts into tears and says, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”

Who makes the clowns laugh? It’s a variation on the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who watches the watchman), and was a sentiment heavily imbued with regards to the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams in 2014. According to the Ministry of Health, the diagnostic rate in New Zealand for the most common mental health disorders (depression, and bipolar and anxiety disorder) is 16%. Among artists and entertainers, however, the diagnostic rate for depression alone is 48%, with an additional 15% indicating severe signs.

The consequent need for open discussion regarding mental health is vital, but it is only the first step in addressing what is inarguably a national crisis. New Zealand has the second highest suicide rate in the OECD, with anxiety and depressive disorders the second leading cause of health loss in New Zealand. Inner Dialogue, the third in the Comedy Festival’s annual dialogue initiative provides a forum for such an opportunity.

Hosted by Mike King, eight speakers (Jamie Bowen, Ray Shipley, Bree Peters, Dan Crozier, Sonia Gray, Ashton Brown, and Cori Gonzales-Macuer), each in some way connected with the arts and entertainment industry, share personal stories about the struggles they have faced in the wake of mental health. Each speaker addresses an issue relating to the debate on mental health, whether it be deindividuation, community, validation, managing or avoiding grief, medication, or government underfunding, but the denominator is constant; we need to do more.

It’s been four years since he last performed on stage, but King has lost none of his craft. Although he momentarily falls victim to the misogyny of his heyday, King’s confident and comical approach to mental health has an appeal that allows him to connect to his audience without the superciliousness of a reformed preacher. As he warms the crowd, King asks those in attendance who came on a whim, which results in a surprising and optimistic raising of hands.

Mental health and well-being is intrinsically linked to community. The symptoms can be subtle, even silent, but the effect on friends and whanau can also be devastating. The benefit of art is that it allows both individuals and communities to cathartically laugh and cry together in a way that the Kiwi mentality does not often allow. Sir John Kirwan undoubtedly changed the attitude towards mental health in New Zealand, from a place in which masculinity identified it as a weakness no less, but there is still much more to be done. Perhaps the arts can fill the gaps sports cannot. Laughter, after all, is the best medicine.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow YOUTH: (09) 376 4155
CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Inner Dialogue played at Q Rangatira on May 10.

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